Sunday, December 9, 2018

12-9-18 “Glories Stream”

   We celebrated some special birthdays this morning with Ruth and JoAnn. And I know there are many more of you who have birthdays this month as well. 
December is a big birthday month in our extended family too. We had a nephew’s birthday on December 1st, a niece on the 10th, Lynn’s brother’s birthday would have been the 13th, mine is the 15th, my daughter’s is the 16th, our brother-in-law’s is on 17th, and we have yet another niece celebrating on the 27th. And at our house, when we celebrate a birthday, regardless of the month, we usually have a cake or an ice cream cake or something on which we place candles for the birthday girl or boy to blow out. We have a lot of birthday candles, both regular candles and those wax number candles. However, we only have two number candles - the numbers #2 and #3. So regardless of your age, you get a #2 and/or a #3, along with some individual candles to light the way to making your birthday wish.

   December birthdays, though, are…special, and I’ve always found that having a December birthday was a mixed bag. In fact, for years I jokingly referred to being born in December as planned parenthood - your parents plan you for Christmas time so that they didn’t have to buy you as much!  I mean, if you’re born in other months, you’ve probably never received a combined “birthday/Christmas” present - you’ve gotten two separate gifts, right? 
December is almost always too cold - at least in Ohio - for an outdoor birthday party unless you like skiing or sledding or something, so there are likely no ponies, no picnics, no trip to the zoo or the waterpark, no Cedar Point or King’s Island fun. In fact, the Christmas season is so busy for most families that there’s likely not much of a birthday party at all. When I was in college, my friends threw a “Half-birthday” party for me in June just so I could have a real party with them there instead of it occurring while we were all away on Christmas break. December birthdays are just, as I said…special.

   I always enjoy seeing who else I share a birthday with, and besides sharing the 15th with JoAnn, we also share that date with comedian Tim Conway, actor Don Johnson, singer Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five, and billionaire philanthropist J. Paul Getty. That’s a pretty diverse group of fellow "1-5ers" I guess. But I don’t share this calendar info to make this about me, or about my fellow December birthday sisters and brothers, but rather to help us think about the meaning of Christmas from a different perspective than how we might usually approach it. 

   Our scripture from Luke’s gospel today is basically a birth announcement, but rather than arriving in the mail or via email with a link to a gift registry at Babies-R-Us, it comes from angels - first one angel then a multitude - enough angels to make the Mormon Tabernacle Choir look like rag-tag group of carolers. 
   “Don’t be afraid!” the angel proclaims. What a strange way to begin a birth announcement. “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you - wonderful, joyous news for all people.” Nearly every angel-human encounter in the bible begins with some variation of “Don’t be afraid.” Real life angels apparently don’t physically look like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Della Reese from “Touched By An Angel,” or those cute little Valentines cherubs if the first thing out of their mouth every time is “Don’t be afraid.” But I digress. 

   “I bring good news to you!” Good news, from the Greek euangelion, from which we get “evangel,” “evangelical,” “evangelism,” “angel,” and the word “gospel.” The gospel is good news. The word “gospel” means good news. The angel announces good news, joyous news for all people. 
   “Your savior is born today in David’s city.” Not just “a” savior, “your” savior, the savior of “all people,” the angel proclaims. “He is Christ the Lord.” The angel doesn’t give the baby’s name - Christ is not Jesus’ last name, it’s his title. The Christ is the anointed one, the messiah of God, the savior from God. John’s gospel calls it the Word of God. Richard Rohr helps us understand what is meant here by suggesting we think of it as the “blueprint” or “plan” of God. The primary meaning found in this announcement is NOT the birth of a baby named Jesus from Nazareth, the primary focus of the announcement is the revelation of God and God’s plan for salvation in the flesh. 
God embodied. Good news!

   So, in thinking about this Christmas miracle - told as a birth story - in a more personal, intimate way, through the lens of births and birthdays that we all can relate to, the meaning of Christmas has to be lodged somewhere, someplace deep inside who we are. And through this lens, we might actually have an embodied experience of what can be a rather baffling and bewildering doctrine in which we believe, but at the end of the day, if we are honest, we hardly know what to do with.
   As Karoline Lewis so eloquently reminds us:
“…that confusing and confounding [doctrine] is the incarnation itself. What does the incarnation really mean? Yes, of course, always, it means that God chose to enter into our humanity, in all of its fullness and foibles, its power and pain, its joys and sorrows. Yes, of course it means that God would even experience death itself, only to defeat its determined grip on our lives and turn it into eternal life. 
But what does it really mean for us, here and now and today, beyond the truth of Jesus of Nazareth and the promise of an empty tomb?”
   “The incarnation means that at the same time the incarnation is a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. We begin to realize that in God’s decision to become human that our humanity matters. We begin to recognize that in God’s commitment to bodies that our bodies matter. We begin to remember that God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters.”

   So these angels declare more than just a simple birth to these lowly shepherds who live in the fields. They declare great joy! Births are joyful occasions, even without choirs of angels! But this one, this one is even more special. The passage tells us that in this announcement, “glories stream.” Our song says “Glories stream from heaven afar.” But what does that mean? 

   I shared with you last week that in scripture light is often representative of God’s presence, and of the symbolism we use in the Advent and Christmas season around light. “The glory of the Lord shone around them…” the passage said. A search for “glory” at gets you multitudes of examples of the Hebrew texts’ use of the word when it comes to God, which continues into the Gospel depictions of the presence of God. Throughout the scriptures, “glory” often has to do with “shining,” with light. God is light and the light surrounds us. 
God’s presence, God’s deliverance, God’s strength is with us like that pillar of fire, the burning bush, and now the star and accompanying theatrics of angels bringing their singing to the shining. The Isaiah passage from last week said that the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. The angels show us the appropriate response to this shining light... “Glory to God!” 
Praise is the only thing we can do in the face of such power and promise that we are not, ever, alone, that God is with us.

   This Sunday is about Joy. And as we consider this text in the context of our celebration of the song “Silent Night, Holy Night,” how can we not connect joy with “glories” and “alleluias?” Typically, we wouldn’t get to this scripture reading until Christmas Eve, working our way through all of the Advent passages about waiting and anticipating both the coming and second coming of Christ. 
But this year we’re jumping the gun a little early as we consider that silent and holy night that is often lost in the confusion of Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which actually start on Christmas Day rather than leading up to it, as many believe. So like a nice piece of Christmas chocolate, let’s let this idea of joy and glory streaming roll around on our tongue for a bit, let’s savor it’s flavor before we bite into it and finish it off. 
   The angels come with JOY - the shepherds respond in fear. There may have been plenty to fear for these folks. One commentator suggests that these were possibly not only the “lowly” in terms of job importance, but these may have been the lowliest of shepherds... the hired hands, not the owners of the land or the sheep but the indentured slaves or lowest-wage earners working the night shift and literally “living in the fields.” It is the darkest part of the night when suddenly something that felt absolutely apocalyptic shook the earth where they stood.
   Fear can make us feel like we are on the edge. If we’re jumpy already, anything that reeks at all of difference or change can feel like a threat. 
We get hyper-aware and on the look-out for the bad stuff we hear about every day, on the news, on our phones, seemingly everywhere.

   “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate”, Dr. Bruce Perry explains in an article published on the Time magazine website. 
When faced with a threat, the part of our brain responsible for risk assessment and actions cease to function. In other words, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.” That is, our limbic brain kicks in and we revert to “fight or flight” reactions. 
And for most of us, when we become overwhelmed (and who doesn’t in this fast-paced, expectations-out- of-control world), we tend to struggle to find joy and to see the good that is all around us.

   Enter the angel’s message: “We’ve got Good News!” “Good news” is another term often used in scripture for God’s presence and strength. “Hey, over here! Don’t forget you aren’t alone.” In fact, what the angels were about to tell the shepherds was that God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s light was streaming all over them. This IS Good News for ALL.

   So... what’s joy got to do with it? What Good News are we missing, what don’t we see all around us that is worthy of joy, because we’re distracted, too jumpy with fear? This story is one of transformation from fear to joy, from panic to praise. The “glory” (code for “light”) streams upon us. God’s goodness, presence and strength are all around us and IN us. To use a pop culture reference that has made a reappearance at theaters recently, “A Star is Born” every time we let ourselves embrace joy and let that star shine its light from within us to the world. We’re called to be a star and let our joy spill out, streaming all over the place. We’re called to be a star!
Say it with me - “I Am a Star!” Say it again! Louder, like you mean it - like you believe it! “I Am a Star!”
   Sometimes we get embarrassed by expressing joy, don’t we? Especially the “higher” we get on the totem pole or the more concerned we are about “appearances.”

Author Marianne Williamson wrote in her book, “Return to Love,”
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. 
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”
(from Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, Harper Collins, 1992)

   We need to be a people and a church that isn’t afraid to belly-laugh, to gasp in delight, to seek out beauty, and to see the world through the lens of wonder and respond with joy. For we believe in a God who is “awesome and a wonder-worker,” as the Psalmist reminds us, a God who, as Jesus told us, made us to be light for the world! Perhaps the “silence” we speak of this week is the need to silence the onslaught of messages of fear and open ourselves to see and experience the beauty that sustains our joy of life - the life that God embraced and embodied in a child, born in a manger, 2000 years ago.

   So, here is what we need to take away from this story, from this idea of joy, and of God’s glory streaming in and around us: That God was born and was human, means that you matter, that I matter -- that we are special in the eyes of God. Not just some of us, but all of us. And not in some sort of narcissistic, egocentric, kind of way but because to be human can never be a generalized claim. To be human is to be you, as God created you to be. So be you.
   And no, it’s not all about you, but it is everything about you. The incarnation is this radically reciprocal reality. God’s commitment to being human in Jesus is God also saying, “I am committed to you being you and being fully you.” It is God saying “I love the true you.”

   Richard Rohr writes, “The True Self -- where you and God are one -- does not choose to love as much as it is love itself already. (see Colossians 3:3-4). 
The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion. Loving from this core of your being as you were created is experienced as a river within you that flows of its own accord. (see John 7:38-39). 
From this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves everything. We were made in love, for love, and unto love. This deep inner ‘yes,’ that is God IN us, is already loving God through us. The false self doesn’t really know how to love in a very deep or broad way. It is too opportunistic. It is too small. It is too self-referential to be compassionate.” 
It is too fearful, to be joyful.

   Christmas is the gift from God of God’s very self for the sake of you being your very self so that the world might know God’s love -- in, through, and because of you. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

12-2-18 “Sleep in Heavenly Peace”

   As a student of history, I’ve read many stories of war, multiple tales of battles won and lost, seemingly endless sagas of both tragedy and triumph on battlefields across the nation and around the globe. I’ve studied the political maneuverings that have both begun and ended wars in our country and abroad. From the American Revolution that precipitated the founding of our nation to the ongoing War in Afghanistan - the longest war in U.S. history - and every conflict in between, there have been both horror and heroics, terror and triumph, faith and failure. And those are just the wars that have involved our country. When we look elsewhere, in other times and other places, there is little doubt that the same holds true.

   Ancient Israel was no stranger to war. They had battled for their very survival from almost the moment they were founded. Situated in a strategic crossroads of the Mediterranean, between Europe, Egypt, and the far East, Israel was prime real estate and everybody wanted to occupy it. In 722 BCE it was the Assyrian Empire who came rumbling through and took control. In 586 BCE it was the invading Babylonian Empire. After that came the Persian Empire, and shortly before Jesus’ time it was the Roman Empire who came calling. Israel knew war. They knew hardship. They knew strife. They knew hopelessness. 
They had a long history of hopelessness. 

   They also had a long history of promised hope. 
Isaiah the prophet of God offered hope in the midst of exile, and loss, and famine, and death, and war. 
He wrote:
In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   God’s house on the mountain - Zion - is an image that comes from the Exodus from Egypt, where God led the people to the mountain and made covenant, made promise with them to be their God. And Isaiah says that when God’s house is again established on the highest of the mountains, ALL the nations shall stream to it. ALL of the nations - friend and foe alike.
   The word translated as “stream,” or “flow,” as in “stream like water” or “flow like a river,” the Hebrew naharu, also means “to shine in joyful radiance.” 
Those who come to the mountain of God, those who will flow or stream to the home of God, will shine in God’s radiance, this suggests. 

Isaiah continues,
    Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
    and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
   What are God’s ways? What is God’s path? We have to go way back for that. Way back to…the last three weeks and our series on the Beatitudes, and that passage from the other prophet, Micah, who told us that the way of God, what God desires is for us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” 
Funny how this all fits together when you look at it broadly and in context, isn’t it?
Isaiah continues, 
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
   Hear that word - it says God will judge BETWEEN the nations, not JUDGE the nations, God will arbitrate, God will settle disputes between nations. Why? To what end? 
To that Isaiah says,
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:1-4

   The way of God is the way of peace - blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. The way of war is the way of darkness - deep darkness. God desires peace. Isaiah is a prophet. More than predictors of future events, prophets act as the voice of God to the world. Isaiah is telling Israel that God desires peace, God desires for them to learn, not war, but God’s ways of peace. 

   The prophet continues later in chapter 9:
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined…
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

   Now, Isaiah isn’t predicting the future here - or at least he doesn’t intend to. He’s pointing to a light that God is shining then and there, not 700 years later. 
He’s talking about a person, a king. He’s likely talking about the boy King Josiah. Little did he know that Josiah, although he would be  great king - perhaps the greatest since David - would not be the greatest light. It is only later, looking through the lens of Jesus Christ, that we can see that the child born for us, the son given to us, is not the boy king Josiah, but Jesus. 
   This is a prophetic vision of peace, and this would have been exactly what the Israel of Jesus’ time was looking for as well. In fact, Isaiah’s descriptions of a king who would bring them out from under oppression would be repeated by Luke and Matthew centuries later for much the same reason. 
   So while Isaiah was referring to a king of the southern kingdom of Judah in this reference, what this sets up is the people’s understanding that peace depended on just and compassionate rulers. In the so-called pax Romana, Caesar had created “peace” by suppressing human rights and violently throwing down protests, so the Jews had a great yearning for freedom, for light. How poignant would be the vision from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

   God’s presence is associated with light throughout scripture, as we shall see every week in Advent. So, when we think about this passage, when we think about the passage I shared a moment ago including the word naharu, meaning both to stream or flow and to glow in radiance, an image or idea is created that as we move closer to God, as we grow more intimate with the Creator, God’s radiance shines on us, in us, and through us. As Jesus said, we are the light of the world. That is the symbolism in this series of the images of stars as the light of God, and in the lighting of Advent Candles in this season. Light represents God’s presence in and with us.
   The other important image we find in these readings from Isaiah today is the iconic message of turning weapons of war into tools of gardening, of growing, and cultivating and nurturing. We are invited to use our ingenuity, our creativity, our energy for good and for building up, as opposed to tearing down or destroying.  
   The point here is not to begin a debate about war, but rather to acknowledge the effects of war and our human capacity to reach across divides and find our common humanity. This is the work of building up community that we are called to do. And this is poignantly expressed in the story of the WWI “Christmas truce” of 1914. 
   It’s a remarkable story that emerged from the front line trenches of WWI. Though accounts vary, it seems that in the week leading up to Christmas 1914, groups of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings, cigarettes and songs between their trenches. The unofficial ceasefires allowed soldiers on both sides, up to 100,000 by some accounts, to venture out into No Man’s land - the stretch of land between the German and British trenches – to collect and bury the bodies of dead soldiers. One version of events has it that the Germans began singing “Stille Nacht”, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. British soldiers, recognizing the tune, joined in. Some groups of soldiers even finished up with a game of soccer together.
   Actual letters from British soldiers who witnessed the truce give us a glimpse of that Christmas Eve on the Western Front 100 years ago. Here is what some of them said about what happened:

Reader 1: “The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7:30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged anyone of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge and took a big cake to exchange.”
Reader 2: “We came from our mouseholes and saw the English advancing towards us and waving cigarette boxes, handkerchiefs and towels. They had no rifles with them and there we know it could only be a greeting and that it was alright.”

Reader 3: “We had a church service and sang hymns, we met the Germans midway between the trenches and wished each other a ‘Merry Christmas’. We exchanged buttons, badges, caps, etc, and we all sang songs.”
Reader 4: “They gave us cigars and cigarettes and toffee and they told us they didn’t want to fight, but had to. Some could speak English as well as we could and some had worked in Manchester. The Germans seem very nice chaps who were awfully sick of the war.”
Reader 5: “We were able to move about the whole of Christmas Day with absolute freedom. It was a day of peace in war.... It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.”

   Another soldier writes about how the truce came to an end at 3pm on Christmas day when a German officer called his men in:”
Reader 6: “A German soldier said to me ‘today (Christmas Day) nice; tomorrow, shoot.’ As he left me he held out his hand, which I accepted, and said: ‘Farewell, comrade.’ With that we parted....”

   A truce is an attractive idea isn’t it? 
“Truce” is an interesting word. In writing about it, Marcia McFee offers, “I love to discover the origins of words, and when I looked up ‘truce,’ I found that it comes from the root word for ‘faith, faithfulness, assurance of faith, covenant, truth, fidelity, promise.’ Now, all this is complex because we don’t advocate for a truce, or ‘silence,’ in order to sweep the concerns of tyranny and oppression aside, but that in the pursuit of justice, our covenant and promise is to the thriving of all humankind. In the silencing of war, if only for a day, we can hear the cries of the suffering of humanity and ask, ‘Is this the way out of the dark night or is there another way?’”

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined…

   Our exploration of the hymn “Silent Night” for this Advent/Christmas season is a way of “shining a light” on the power of reaching across divides and getting silent enough to listen to the “hopes and fears of all the years” of those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another. 
This story offers a powerful reminder that, like that one person who issued the initial invitation to come out of the “mouseholes” and connect face to face, we each have the ability to reach across divides and connect because we are humans with common human needs and, deep down, we all have the desire for peace for ourselves and our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day.
   Remembering this truce more than a century later isn’t just about what happened then. It’s about what we as God’s children - followers of the Prince of Peace - can do now, in the midst of conflict and fear in the 21st century. What we can do today, right now - this Christmas, to help our families, our communities, our world hang on to our humanity in the face of brutality? 
What can we do to continue to love one another and to care about those we don’t even know, while so much around us shouts at us to hate and fear and give up on the real possibilities for peace and reconciliation? 
How can we meaningfully pray for those we call enemies today as well as those who were enemies in 1914?
   In the same way that British and German soldiers made a human to human connection with each other by sharing Christmas greetings and singing, we’re called to connect with those around us who are strangers, who don’t know the love of Christ, and to share a bit about who we are, to maybe sing the carol, ‘Silent Night’ together, and celebrate the Good News of God’s saving love coming to us as a baby on Christmas Day.
   As children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to say ‘yes’ to the possibility of peace in a world of conflict by sharing the light and love of Christ with those we once called “enemy,” or might call “stranger.” 
There is a saying that suggests “there are no atheists in foxholes,” that in the middle of a battle, in the midst of conflict, everyone is looking to God for salvation, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.  
   Gareth Higgins, a peacemaker and theologian from Northern Ireland, who knows of war and conflict from all that has gone on in his country writes this, 
   “There are lots of ways to prevent violence, lots of ways to repair its consequences, lots of ways to build beloved community. In a polarized society there may be no more effective violence prevention measure than building bridges, or at least none more accessible. Get to know at least one person who votes differently. It’s not necessarily easy. But it is necessary. And the history of conflict transformation proves it works. Start with the person of different political views with whom you feel most comfortable. Just get to know each other. This is the work.” 
   As you leave worship today you will be given a resource on the little things that each of us can do to help build community.
   Our scripture today, this song that we celebrate, this unlikely truce from a century ago, all remind us that our congregation, our community, our world is full of people who love life, long for peace, dream about a better future for their families, and struggle with the challenge of how to walk faithfully with God, and “sleep in heavenly peace.” May you shine the light of God on their path as well as your own in this most holy of seasons. Amen.